19 September 2001 – The emotional turmoil generated by last week’s calculated atrocity in New York has left most people feeling vulnerable and unsure. The pundits have been in overdrive and amidst the welter of confusing analysis and bellicose rhetoric it should hardly come as a surprise that some people will embark upon their own crusades against perceived ‘enemies’.
All the more reason for the media to watch carefully the language and the messages they publish. And for members of the public to complain if they think coverage is overstepping the mark and inflaming public feeling. The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard were among papers reported to the Press Complaints Commission in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist outrage. Fifteen complaints were received that week.
In the main the print and broadcast media have been exemplary in their coverage over the last 10 days. But the backlash has begun with a vengeance in the UK, with attacks on mosques, physical assaults and verbal abuse directed against Muslims, and especially Afghanis and Pakistanis. Feelings whipped up against refugees and asylum seekers over the last few years have already led to murder, arson and assaults. The massacre in America threatens to fuel more violence.
By Tuesday 18 September the Mirror was urging ‘STOP THIS MADNESS’ as reports of random attacks on British Muslims and foreigners increased.
And the Commission for Racial Equality issued its own warning to the Press: “Journalists and editors must balance news value with the need to portray all communities in the UK fairly and avoid coverage which is based on racial stereotypes or unfounded misconceptions”.
The day before the attack on New York the Sun trumpeted ‘One million illegals hiding in Britain’.
Over the next few days most of the papers ran stories about Muslim fundamentalists and alleged extremist organisations in the UK with connections to Bin Laden. Attacks on innocent people soon followed. Afghan refugees were reported to be quitting the Red Cross Centre at Sangatte near Calais because of hostility from other inmates.
The Sun had responded with an editorial headed: ‘Islam is not an evil religion’. Its words of caution to those seeking to blame all Muslims were promptly undermined by a Sunday Express article headed: ‘Spin doctors ordered to spread the message that Islam is not evil: Blair fears new wave of race riots in Britain’.
Another story in the same edition claimed ‘Bin Laden fanatics’ secret London cell’, identifying a house in London’s Kilburn area as the base for a London cell of Egyptian Islamic Jihad – three years ago.
These are dangerous times for everyone, and the threat of ‘war’ and military strikes against Afghanistan will generate an even more acute refugee crisis around the world.
When feelings are already inflamed by the images of death and destruction, there is a natural tendency to remain silent rather than criticise when public feelings are already inflamed by images of death and destruction. Especially when the BBC was forced to apologise, after a furore generated by the newspapers, for allowing a live audience including British Muslims to express their views openly. But silence gives succour to those willing to stoke up race hatred.
PressWise and the RAM project urge anyone who considers that newspaper stories, or radio and TV broadcasts, might encourage attacks on innocent refugees, asylum-seekers, British Muslims or anyone else, to make an immediate complaint.
Addresses and contact numbers for all the media regulators can be found on our website www.presswise.org.uk. The PressWise Trust is available to help those who wish to complain, and is willing to intervene directly with editors.
Express journalists postponed a union meeting last Wednesday at which they were to discuss their plans for a formal complaints about their papers’ recent coverage of asylum issues. They are not abandoning the complaint, but the breaking news from America understandably took precedence.
The RAM project has put coverage of asylum seekers on the agenda of NewsWorld 2001, the annual gathering of TV executives which this year takes place in Barcelona in November. We are looking for senior TV broadcasters now living in exile who might be willing to take part. Suggestions please to Nick Cater on email@example.com.
(Bulletin No 51)